Actual History Scarier Than Any Ghost Story

An incident in my hometown during the Civil War sparked the idea of a short story, but further research proved the real thing was much scarier than anything I could make up.
In the middle of October 1862—very close to the date we now celebrate as Halloween with pumpkins and candy—more than 150 citizens of Gainesville, Texas, were arrested and were accused of being Union spies and within two weeks 42 men were killed.
Gainesville, situated on the Red River north of Dallas and Fort Worth, was about as far away from the main fronts of the war as you could get that it should have been able to sit out the war without bloodshed. However, with the completion of the Butterfield Overland Mail route which originated in St. Louis and passed through Gainesville on its way to out west, fear gripped the community like nothing it had ever experienced before.
Locals became alarmed at the growing number of people coming to town from Kansas and other points north where abolitionist fever was high pitched. Only ten percent of the households owned slaves, and voters in Cooke County, whose government seat was in Gainesville, voted against secession in 1860. Even a Union League was formed, mostly to fight military conscription and to protect property from marauding Native Americans from the territory now known as Oklahoma, just a few miles from Gainesville across the Red River.
Neighbor distrusted neighbor. Conspiracies dominated gossip circles around town. All came to a boiling point when Confederate leaders ordered all men who had not heeded their draft notices to be arrested. Within two weeks in October, 42 men were hanged by tribunal—headed by leading slave-owners in the community—and by vigilante mobs. Two of them were shot to death while trying to escape. The son of one man hanged for treason was actually a soldier in the Confederate army. When he heard of his father’s death he deserted and joined Union forces.
No one was ever brought to justice for the hangings. Some of the instigators insisted that at least one or two of the victims actually had sent army secrets to Washington. This begs the point of what on earth could have been going on in this small Texas town that would have been of benefit to the Union army.
For the next hundred and fifty years, people of Gainesville politely ignored the entire incident. In one of the city parks was a granite monument but the inscription was written with a bias toward the Confederacy. Families of the victims eventually moved elsewhere except for a handful who knew it was best not to talk about it. My junior year in high school I wanted to write a research paper about the hangings. This was in 1965, but I was still warned by people not to try to stir anything up.
Just this month, October of 2014, a group sympathetic to the victims and their families raised enough money to erect two new granite monuments with more historically accurate accounts of hangings and a list of the victims’ names. The town is still split over the incident—one third wants recognition for the victims, another group sees a way to make some tourist money out of it, like Salem, Mass., and its witch hanging industry, and finally one group still insists no one should be talking about this at all. It could give Gainesville a bad name.
The only thing each group agrees on is the name of the historical moment—The Great Hanging. It always struck me odd how the death of 42 people could be called great, but then I reminded myself of the Great Depression, the Great War in Europe and the Great Plague. They were great not in a complimentary way but in a completely horrible way.
My first thought was to write a ghost story about the hanging victims who come back to Gainesville for revenge, but I decided that would trivialize such a horrifying episode. Not because something I would write could give my hometown a bad name. Gainesville has to deal with its image on its own. Nope. Nothing Halloween about this.

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